I’M A dead man.
Had I known my life would be coming to an end so soon, I would have accepted that extra slice of bacon at breakfast that morning. Now it was too late, and I was hungry. Why the hell had I bothered coming back here? I certainly would be caught.
Who was I kidding? I knew why I came back, why I always came back, risking life and limb. I’d get to be near him, but only after shaking off a certain madman.
I held my bloodied arm against my side as I ran through the expansive halls of Hawthorne Manor, grateful for the lush carpet that swallowed the sound of my footsteps. It was only a matter of time before I was hunted down, and when that happened, it would all be over. Why was I always the one left holding the bag? ’Cause sometimes you ain’t so bright, Johnnie-boy.
Giving myself a good dressing down for the hundredth time, I ran into the library, frantically searching for a safe hiding spot before noticing the two rubes with their noses once again stuck in some moldy, dusty book. They didn’t even tear their gazes away long enough to acknowledge me.
“You did it again, didn’t you?” Alexander sighed heavily, still focused on his book.
I grunted in response, moving around the room as I tried to find a big enough space where I might be able to wedge myself. Damn joint was nothing but wall-to-wall books. None of the armchairs or sofas were big enough for me to hide behind or under, and there was no way in hell I was crawling into the fireplace again. Last time I attempted such a genius feat, I spent days finding soot in places there should be none.
Bobby didn’t bother looking up either. His sweet, gentle voice did nothing to ease my mind. “He found out, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” For crying out loud! Here I was in mortal danger and these two half-wits were absorbed in—what the hell were they reading anyway? I marched over and snatched the book away to get a good look. “Jane Austen? You’re reading about frilly dames with bonnets and parasols?” I gave a disgusted snort and shoved the book back at them.
Alexander gave me a superior smile that made me want to sock him, as usual. “He’s going to find you, you know. He always does.”
“Thanks. How about you use those smarts of yours to get me outta this?” I leaned toward him with a growl, hoping my non-genteel approach might persuade him.
“Well, then fuck you, and your pansy book.” I snatched the book out of his hand and was ready to pitch it across the room when Bobby’s big, innocent blue eyes turned to me. I slammed the book on the desk in front of him. Why did the pip always have to look like he was two heartbeats away from bursting into tears? He was only two years younger than me but didn’t look it. Not with that rosy complexion and those pouty lips. I couldn’t be terrible to him if I wanted. It would be like kicking a puppy.
Alexander, on the other hand, I could happily tell to go fly a kite. Him and his stupid unruly red hair, with his prissy wireframe glasses, swanky three-piece suit, and honeyed voice. Most of the time I wanted to smack the freckles off him.
“You’re dripping blood on the carpet,” Alexander murmured casually, resuming his reading.
“Shit!” I pleaded with Bobby—the only one in this annoying little duo who I knew would actually lift a finger to help me. “Could you scrub that up for me? Please? I gotta go before he finds me.”
Bobby quickly nodded, much to Alexander’s frustration. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the stool pigeon turned me in. “Okay,” Bobby said, “but you better hurry. I think I just heard the front door slam.”
Damn it, he was closer than I thought. I made tracks out of the room so fast I hit the opposite wall with my good shoulder. Cursing up a storm, I fled down the hall toward the only man who could keep me safe. Well, as safe as possible with that son of a bitch around. When I ran into the study and closed the door, I turned to find pale green eyes watching me worriedly from behind the expansive mahogany desk. His gaze went to my bleeding arm and he sighed.
“Please tell me you didn’t.”
I ran over to Jacky’s side, nearly hopping from one foot to the other like one of the Brats in my anxiety. Old habits die hard, as they say, and it didn’t help me that I had truly worked myself up over this. God, what the hell had I been thinking? “I’m so sorry. I really am. I swear, this time it wasn’t my fault.” For the most part.
“That’s what you said about the last two, and look at your arm.” Jacky tenderly reached out to touch my skin underneath my shredded shirtsleeve and I winced. Damn it. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t decided to leave my suit jacket in the back seat before taking part in my little joyride with that twit Glen.
“It looks worse than it is,” I assured him, angry with myself for having worried Jacky yet again.
“You need to go see Henry.” He gave me a pointed look and I cringed.
“No, uh, it’s fine. Just a scrape.” Henry, Jesus. What was he going to think? I felt like such an utter pill. Before I could ease Jacky’s worries, I heard evil itself bellow from the hall.
“Johnnie, you little shit! Get your ass out here!”
It was the coward’s way out, but I couldn’t deal with him right now. I turned to Jacky and pleaded. “You gotta hide me.”
“Please.” I was laying it on thick, I knew, but Jacky was the only one with any sway in this. He was the only one who was completely out of his reach.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you.” I quickly dropped to the floor behind him, praying he could work his magic. It always worked, but there was the slight chance today would be the day it didn’t. Lately, it seemed as if Lady Luck had abandoned me. At some point or another, most folks did. She clearly had found someone less troublesome, and I couldn’t blame her.
The doors burst open and the most frightening, nefarious, sarcastic bastard anyone would ever know entered the room with all the flair of a Hollywood sheik. Guess you could take the pansy out of the theater, but you couldn’t take the theater out of the pansy.
“Where is he?”
I heard Jacky don his most soothing tone. “You need to take a deep breath, sweetheart. You’re going all purple in the face.”
“If I drop dead from a coronary you’ll know why. Do you hear me, Johnnie? I know you’re in here. You gonna be a man about this and come out, or you gonna keep hiding behind Jacky’s coattails all your life?”
“Lay off!” The hell with him. I wasn’t hiding behind Jacky. Well I was, just not how he meant. I took a deep, fortifying breath, and stood to face the man who was judge, jury, and executioner around here. I grinned widely as I greeted him from behind Jacky.
“Oh, don’t you dare Chauncey me. I am two seconds from—”
I walked out from behind Jacky, holding my arm to me, and all at once, the wrath in those steel-blue eyes vanished. His gaze went to my arm and he cursed under his breath. I felt like a heel of the worst sort. There was only one thing that would take the wind out of Chance’s sails and that was seeing one of us hurt. Then the hurricane-force winds and bone-crushing fierceness that usually made up my best friend and unofficial big brother dwindled into a barely blustering seaside breeze. Everyone mistook us for brothers on account of how alike we were—or so I was told. I never quite saw the similarities. Okay, so maybe I could be kind of stubborn and a pain in the backside, but I wasn’t as bad as Chance. Was I?
Personally, I thought the similarities ended with our looks. I was a couple inches shorter than Chance’s six-foot-two, but we had similar frames: slender but well toned from all the moving about we did. Chance was a natural-born performer, singer, and dancer. He had the looks to match too, like he was meant to be in pictures, and had his life not taken the turn it had when he was younger, he probably would’ve been right up there with Valentino and the rest of those canaries rather than teaching at the town theater a couple of times a week.
We both had pitch-black hair and eyebrows against somewhat tan skin, though Chance had these pale blue peepers the dames were always tripping themselves over, whereas mine were so dark they looked black. We both knew how to lay on the charm when we needed to, though over the years, Chance had developed this bad habit of behaving responsibly.
Chance marched over to me and I knew better than to fight him on this. He looked me over, running his hand over my head and through my hair in search of any bumps or gashes before giving me a once-over and finally getting to my arm, which he handled with unexpected care.
“I’m fine, Chance. It’s just some nasty scratches is all.”
“That mug can’t drive for shit. How come he don’t drive his own goddamn car into a tree, huh?”
“I was driving this time. We were fooling around,” I muttered, as if that explained everything.
After some hesitation, Chance finally released my arm and took a step back to lean against Jacky’s desk, his arms folded over his chest. “I don’t wanna know what the hell you two were doing. All I know is, any man who puts your life in danger for kicks ain’t worth squat. Leave ’im be before you find yourself in a hole so deep, you won’t be able crawl back out. He doesn’t care about you, Johnnie.”
“Well, that suits me just fine, seeing as how he ain’t nothing more to me than an easy tumble in the sack.” I hated how harshly my words came out, but the truth was, Chance was right, which I hated even more.
“Yeah, well, we don’t all got what you got, so don’t judge me.”
Chance cast me a warning glare. “You know damn well I’d be the last person to judge you, so don’t insult my intelligence. We also both know you could have what I have if you wanted it, but instead you’re choosing a wrong number like Glen. Don’t be a pushover.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Yeah? That arm says you don’t.” Chance ran a hand through his hair and I told myself I had to get out of here before this turned into one of his sappy speeches about accountability and pride in myself.
“We done here? ’Cause I gotta breeze.”
Chance let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah, we’re done.”
I started to walk away when I heard Jacky’s quiet voice.
“Please be more careful.”
Damn it. I told myself not to do it, but I was a glutton for punishment, especially since I deserved it. I turned to look at Jacky, who had come out from behind his desk. I wished he hadn’t. I hated seeing him in that thing, but worse than the sight of him in the wheelchair was the disappointment in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said sincerely. “I’ll try harder.” With that I left the room.
No matter how many times I told myself I was too old to feel bothered by Jacky’s disappointment, I did feel it, down to my very core. Because unlike every other no-good bastard who had walked in and out of my miserable life, Jacky had been true to his word and stuck by me through thick and thin. It was thanks to him I had a life at all, miserable or otherwise. I had been sixteen years old when I tried to pull the Dutch act in the middle of that godforsaken desert, but thanks to Jacky, the bullet from my pistol ended up lodged in a palm tree instead of my skull. I didn’t know who the hell Jacky was at the time or why he cared, but when he pulled me into his arms and assured me everything would be all right—for some screwy reason, I believed him.
Jacky Valentine had been my Commandant in the French Foreign Legion and ended up the start of a new life for me, Bobby, Alexander, and Chance. Over the years while we served in that hellish organization, even after Chance had joined our motley crew and turned things upside down, Jacky had been a pillar of strength, an unmovable mountain of pure hard muscle standing at six-and-a-half feet tall. The calm in the chaos. Then in 1926, our world came crumbling down.
Jacky had been ambushed. One bullet had gone clean through his side, another his shoulder, four through his leg, and one bullet had lodged itself in his back. The bullet luckily hadn’t reached his spine but it had done its damage, and eight years later, Jacky’s body was starting to give him trouble. On good days, he could manage just fine with the help of his cane, but on days like today when the pain was too great, he was forced to use the wheelchair. Henry had warned us there was a chance Jacky’s condition would deteriorate, and if that happened, he would most likely wake up one day bound to his wheelchair permanently. That night the only one who hadn’t cried himself to sleep had been Jacky, too concerned with how the rest of us were taking the news to fret about himself. Even with his injuries, Jacky remained our unmovable mountain. Not only had he survived, but he had become more determined than ever. After leaving the scorching desert and all its wretchedness behind, Jacky gave life to his dream: Hawthorne Manor.
It wasn’t enough Jacky had taken three broken misfits under his wing; he wanted to do more, and so the idea of using his swanky home in the English countryside to help others like Bobby, Alexander, and myself, was born. Jacky wanted to help queer young men who had been mistreated and discarded, such as we had been once. Although we were already a somewhat unconventional family, Jacky asked us to live with him and help him run the place. We knew it wouldn’t be no picnic, and there were only the six of us to do everything from supplying essentials like food and clothing to medical aid and education. It wasn’t just about providing these kids with a loving family, but giving them the courage and strength they needed to once again join a world that had treated them so vilely.
Seven years later and we had seven castaways in total, varying in ages from six to twenty. Chance and I referred to them as the Brats, a name Chance had once used in reference to Bobby, Alexander, and me, a term—as I understood it—spawned from frustration which had evolved to one of endearment. As far as the outside world was concerned, Hawthorne Manor was simply the estate of an eccentric American war veteran with English roots who lived there with his caregiver, war buddies, and the strays he took in.
Our discretion was tragic, but necessary. No matter our good deeds, the law and society were not on our side. Even so, some days were peaceful, some were crushing, but no matter what happened, we were committed to giving these boys a chance at a better life. It was all thanks to Jacky, and I knew if I lived a thousand lives, I could never hope to be as good a man as him.
“Good heavens, Johnnie, what on earth happened?”
I snapped out of my thoughts, surprised to find Henry staring at me. I had been so lost in my own head, I hadn’t even realized I’d reached the infirmary.
“Sorry, uh, was just woolgathering for a sec there.”
“Well, come on, take a seat.”
I reluctantly sat on the plush, leather cushion of the examining table, trying not to scuff the fancy wood with my shoes. Across from me, the duck-egg-blue wallpaper with a pink-and-beige flower pattern was soothing, as I imagined it was meant to be. The cabinets, cupboards, and counter surfaces were a rich mahogany, and the many jars there held tongue depressors, cotton balls, and all sorts of medical odds and ends. The entire room was spotless, the tiled floor so clean you could eat off it. It was cozy and warm, with a large window overlooking the gardens, its frilly, soft yellow curtain parted and tied back to let the light in.
Hawthorne Manor had been built in the style of a French château by Jacky’s grandparents back in the late 1800s, but it included all the modern comforts, such as running water, central heating, and electricity. It was conveniently situated two miles from the town of Aylesbury and employed thirty indoor staff and fifteen outdoor staff plus eight laundry room staff. The west wing of the house was an attachment built a good twenty years after the rest of the house, and Jacky had gifted it to Henry for all he had done for us. He had insisted Henry use whatever funds were necessary out of the Hawthorne Manor Trust to build his infirmary, a waiting room, a small ward, an office, and linen area.
At the far end of the room was a door which led out onto stone steps and a gravel path leading around to the manor’s main drive. The infirmary was a separate entity, closed off from the rest of the house except for the two servant’s entrances, one of which was used by us to get to and from the main part of the manor to the infirmary. We liked our privacy, and as pleasant as the folks were who came from the neighboring towns in need of Henry’s services, we didn’t want to take any chances.
“My apologies.” Henry carefully pressed his fingers to my bicep. “The cuts aren’t as deep this time. Does anything else hurt?”
“No.” As soon as the word left my mouth, I sucked in a sharp breath. “Stop poking me already.”
“I need to make certain you haven’t broken any ribs. Take off your clothes.”
“You just want to get me naked.” Despite my grumbling, I did as asked, pleased when his cheeks went rosy, and he walked off to get some bandages he clearly didn’t need. I liked seeing him all flustered. It showed up real nice on the doc’s skin.
Dr. Henry Young was one of them real fair fellas with a light sprinkling of freckles across his nose and faintly over his cheeks. Everything about the doc was light and sunny, reminding me of those rare, perfect summer days. His sandy-blond hair was always neat and tidy, though by the end of the day it usually ended up unruly from him absently messing with it, or from when he had to wrestle one of the boys to get them into the bath. Bath time usually resulted in a compulsory rugby tackle or two.
Out of the six of us who ran Hawthorne Manor, Henry was the only Englishman. Well, Jacky was half English, but he’d grown up in New York City so he sounded more like us. Over the last eight years we Yanks had to adapt to all sorts of screwy changes. Cookies were biscuits, and biscuits were scones, and I never knew how confusing the King’s English could be. My first year here was spent wondering whether folks and I were speaking the same language. Henry assured me we were, so I took his word for it. I wasn’t even going to get started on the Irish and Scottish.
Henry was thirty-four years old, a great doctor, loyal friend, and the sort of fella any dame would kill to take home to mama. ’Course I never had to worry much about the dames coming to swoop Henry away, seeing as how he was as queer as the rest of us. He was about my height, with hazel eyes that appeared to change color in the light, and to me, was the most handsome fella I had ever known. His smile made my pulse go screwy, my knees go weak, and I could say without a doubt I loved him like I never thought I could love another human being. In fact, I had fallen pretty deep the moment I’d laid eyes on him all those years ago, and I’d only grown goofier for him since.
The look on Chance’s face when I admitted I was in love with the good doctor had been priceless. Chance probably had expected me to deny it until my dying breath, as he had once been prepared to do with Jacky, but my problem had never been accepting what I felt for Henry. No, my problem was that I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. Henry was as good as they came. He helped sick folks whether they had the dough to pay or not, stood up for those too weak to do so themselves, was smart, a riot, and too good for the likes of me. No amount of chin wagging was going to convince me otherwise. Henry was everything that was good and pure, and I was the murky stain that would ruin him. I couldn’t do that to Henry. I was balled up in all kinds of ways. I couldn’t infect him and destroy everything that made him so beautiful, so I kept it to myself, or at least I tried my hardest to. Some days were harder than others. Like today.
Today, the scent of his soap and aftershave, the way the fabric of his clothes moved against his body, the tiny lines that formed at the corners of his eyes when he smiled—because Henry smiled a lot and I liked that especially—were all culminating in making me one writhing, uncomfortable heap of desire and frustration, and everyone in the house was aware of what happened when I got frustrated. I got angry and mouthy—more so than usual. And I ended up doing harebrained things—more so than usual. In fact, that had been the cause of today’s little automotive mishap, but I wasn’t about to tell Henry that.
I knew all I had to do was say the word and Henry would give himself over completely. That knowledge tore me up inside most days. Henry was waiting for me, had been for a real long time, despite having been advised by everyone repeatedly to move on, despite my telling him often enough he should find himself a right guy. Sure, he got his kicks when he went up to London—a fella had needs, after all, even a fella as sweet as Henry, but it wasn’t often. Whenever Chance or anyone brought up Henry finding himself a fella, Henry would just smile that bright smile of his and say he was perfectly content. It made me feel all kinds of guilty, but I didn’t have what Henry needed. I couldn’t give him what he deserved.
I was bare from the waist up by the time he returned from his quest for unnecessary bandages. He stopped short and stood there staring at my chest. Under Henry’s gaze, I couldn’t help but puff up a little, because if there was anyone whose thoughts I did give a hoot about, it was Henry’s. His eyes widened a little bit, his lips parted as his breath hitched, and his face flushed when he took in my semi-naked state. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen me like this either. I’d lost count how many times he’d seen me in my swim trunks and pretended his face wasn’t red because of it. I wanted to grab him and take him right where he stood. Jesus, to bend him over this table, to get him in a sweaty, breathless mess….
“I apologize. I uh….” Henry shook his head, closing his eyes and chuckling in embarrassment. “Goodness. That was quite unprofessional wasn’t it?”
I gave him a crooked grin and shrugged. “It’s okay, doc. I have that effect on people. The ones who ain’t cursing me to high Heaven, that is.”
He arched an eyebrow at me before walking over. I couldn’t fool Henry. He knew I was trying to ease his mortification, but his smile told me he was grateful nonetheless. When he looked up at me, I nodded, too lost in his eyes to hear whatever it was he had just said until I felt the sharp burning sensation searing my flesh. I jolted and jerked my arm away.
“Christ, Henry! What the hell you trying to do to me?”
He gently took hold of my arm and with supreme patience, tried again. “I told you I was going to disinfect the scrapes and you nodded, so I did.”
“I wasn’t paying attention.”
Well damn, I couldn’t very well tell him I’d been having a sappy moment staring into his eyes.
“And do stop swearing before Oliver or Gideon hears you.”
“They know not to do what I do.”
“Yes, but you know those two are far too clever for their own good. The moment Chance is out of the room, they’re trying to give you a run for your money.”
I noticed Henry was doing everything in his power not to look me in the eye. “You saying you don’t like my mouth, doc?” I leaned toward him, seeing as how I couldn’t resist any opportunity to see that lovely flush come into his cheeks. Boy, he sure smelled good. Looked good too. Today he was dressed in brown tweed trousers with matching vest, and a green tie that complimented his eyes. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, drawing my attention to his forearms, which of course led my gaze to his wrists, and then his hands. Henry had strong hands with long, slender fingers. They were also the gentlest hands I had ever come across, which I suppose suited him for his profession.
“Your mouth isn’t the problem,” he said. “It’s what comes out of it at times that worries me.”
“You act like I go around offending nuns or something. I ain’t that bad.”
“I wasn’t referring to the swearing. I’ve grown accustomed to that.”
“Oh. What were you referring to, then?”
“How are you feeling today?”
His tone changed to a familiar one, one I didn’t care for when it was directed at me. I narrowed my eyes at him. “That depends. You trying to get into my head again?”
Henry let out a sigh and placed one hand to each side of me, turning the tables on me. I frowned at him as I leaned back. As much as I enjoyed the closeness—even if it was a form of torture—I didn’t enjoy it when he went all head doctor on me and he knew it. Henry had been a shrink once, back before we met in the Legion. Whatever had led him there, was what led him to leaving the head-doctoring behind and turning to general medicine. It was something I always wondered about, but believed wasn’t my place to ask. He’d only started counseling again because the Brats needed him to. He was the only croaker they trusted. He was the only one I trusted. But letting Henry patch me up physically was one thing, letting him in my head was something else entirely. I couldn’t allow it.
“You can discuss anything you like with me at any time,” Henry said gently.
“Yeah, I know.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Why don’t I what?” He really needed to be… not so close.
“Talk to me.”
“I’m talking to you now ain’t I?”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.”
I did know. “Doc—”
“You call me that when you want to keep me at a distance.”
Damn it, he was doing it again. Worst thing was he could keep this up all day. He had this screwy ability to summon patience from God knew where, even where I was concerned—at least on a professional level. On a personal one, I could make Henry lose his rag in record time. “Stop trying to get in my head.”
“You don’t think after all this time you can confide in me?”
“If there’s one mug I know I can, it’s you.”
“Then why don’t you?” His eyes searched mine, and I could see his insecurity, how desperately he wanted to understand me, to get through to me. Every time I pushed him away, he took it as a failure on his part, as if he was culpable for why I was so balled up to begin with. Knowing I was the cause of his feelings of failure made me hate myself all the more.
“Because it’s you.” I wish I could make him understand, but I didn’t know how. Communication wasn’t my strong suit. Unless it was cussing. I was a real champ at that.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
I put my fingers under his chin and gave him as much of a smile as I could muster. “You’re a smart fella. You’ll figure it out.” He looked ready to keep asking questions, so I found myself once again playing the evasion game. I gave his cheek a kiss, catching him off guard so I could slip away.
“That was quite devious.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at his wretched expression. “It was.”
“You’re not even sorry, are you?”
“Not one little bit.”
Henry snatched up my clothes and hurled them at me. “Get out of my infirmary.”
“Are you upset?” I quickly started to dress. It was best I be prepared in case Henry decided to throw something a great deal heftier at me.
“Why would I be upset? Because the one and only time you’ve kissed me was to get away from me?”
“That’s not the only time I’ve kissed you. What about Christmas? I kissed you then, didn’t I? That was pretty swell.”
Something in Henry’s stance told me he didn’t think it was so swell. “Oh, you mean when the boys tripped us so we would end up under the mistletoe together? Is that the kiss you’re referring to?”
“Yeah. It was nice.”
“Nice. Yes, I suppose it was rather nice. You know who else used to give me nice kisses like that? My Nan.”
I gaped at him. From what I recalled, it had been a pretty steamy kiss. “What kinda grandma did you have?”
“Perhaps all the mulled wine you drank that night has somewhat altered your perception.” My blank expression must have said enough, because he let out a heavy sigh. “You kissed my brow.”
“No I didn’t. Did I?”
“You did. Just before passing out. On the billiard table, might I add.” His eyes narrowed and I instinctively took a step back.
“Hm.” I admitted in my head, things had gone a whole lot different. Judging by the uninspired expression he was giving me, he was speaking the truth. Nice one, Johnnie. “Well, aren’t you glad our first kiss wasn’t a drunken one?”
“You have a point,” he conceded.
“And in comparison, you have to admit this one was nicer.”
“Stop saying nice!”
“What’s wrong with nice?”
“I don’t want you to kiss me nicely, Jonathan. I want you to bloody ravish me!”
“I….” Didn’t know what to say to that, but my discomfort was put aside when his whole face turned a sharp crimson and his eyes went wide. It was obvious we were no longer alone. Turning, I found Chance and Jacky at the door struggling to keep their composure.
Chance grinned wickedly. “You been borrowing Mrs. Whitmore’s romance novels again, haven’t you, Henry?”
“I, um, yes. I mean no.” He shook his head and cleared his throat. “Forgive me. I lost track of the time. Jacky, how are you today?”
Henry’s refusal to look me in the eye didn’t bode well. “So, should I uh….”
“Get out,” Henry replied through his teeth.
“Right. Sorry.” I put my hands up and spun on my heels, legging it before Henry gave me the mumps or something just on principle.
Copyright © 2012-2013 Charlie Cochet. All Rights Reserved.